While lawyers in Alabama debated the legal status of a Maryland chess standout arrested on sex charges, officials at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County explained yesterday how the 32-year-old former medical student came to be playing for the school as an undergraduate on a full chess scholarship.
Alex Sherzer of Woodlawn was arrested Friday in Mobile, Ala., on charges that he tried to meet a 15-year-old girl for sex at the juvenile detention center where she lives. He allegedly had been communicating with her by e-mail for weeks.
A federal magistrate judge ruled Monday that Sherzer, a chess grandmaster and native of Fallston in Harford County, should be released on bail so he could begin a medical internship in Louisiana. But Sherzer was still being held yesterday at the Mobile County Metro Jail pending the outcome of a prosecutor's appeal of the ruling. Sherzer's federal public defender did not return calls seeking comment.
Sherzer could receive up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
The case has brought new attention to the UMBC chess team, which Sherzer helped lead to its first-ever victory in the national collegiate championship last month. Yesterday, UMBC officials offered more information about Sherzer's relatively unusual status as a 32-year-old undergraduate at the college.
While he may have been older than most UMBC students, he was fully eligible to compete for its chess team, they said.
Sherzer completed a medical degree in Hungary last year but had never received a bachelor's degree in the United States, UMBC officials said. After arriving at UMBC last fall, he took a full slate of classes toward a bachelor's in emergency health science during fall and spring semesters, said university spokesman Charlie Melichar.
Although UMBC expected Sherzer to study for another year, officials said, he left the school May 2 to take an internship at a hospital in Shreveport, La. His arrest in Mobile came a week after his departure from the university.
Under the U.S. Chess Federation rules that govern collegiate chess, undergraduates must receive a C or higher in at least two courses in either the fall or spring semester to be eligible for competition in that school year. Sherzer met those criteria, posting high grades in his classes, officials said. There are no age restrictions.
Sherzer was the recipient of one of four Coca-Cola-sponsored chess fellowships offered by UMBC. The fellowships, given to grandmaster-level players, offer full tuition plus a $15,000 annual housing stipend. Each fellow must perform 300 hours of community service per year, be in a degree-seeking program and maintain a grade-point average of at least 3.0.
UMBC also offers three other types of chess scholarships, with values of up to $20,000 per year. Melichar said the scholarships are not intended simply to beef up the chess club, but to attract bright students to the university, since top chess talents tend to excel academically. Virtually all of the 12 members of the chess team are on a scholarship, officials said.
"In order to maintain good standing as a chess team member, the players have to be outstanding students," Melichar said. "The standards are very high, and players live up to those standards. We're interested in serious students, period. There is a strong correlation between academic strength and strength as a chess player."
UMBC recruits top chess players, but limits its efforts to players of traditional college-going age, officials said. They said Sherzer approached the university about attending this year.
Playing under his chess nickname "The Surgeon," Sherzer won best-player honors at the Pan-American championship in Miami in December, which UMBC won for the sixth time in seven years.
Previously, he won the prestigious Samford Fellowship for top chess players and the 1991 U.S. Junior Championship.
"He's a person of exceptional talent," said UMBC chess team faculty adviser Alan T. Sherman. "He was an excellent student here."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.